With every year that goes by, the more we think that these otome games are a bit like buses. You wait all year for a story-driven romancey visual novel game to come along, and then suddenly, three turn up pretty much at once. This year's selection comes from publisher Aksys and long-time otome developers Otomate, offering three new romantic visual novels - 7'sCarlet, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly and this game, Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk, as part of their 'Summer of Mystery' promotion. Having sunk tens of hours into this, the final entry and semi-sequel to Phychedelica of the Black Butterfly, we can safely say it's been another good year for otome fans.
Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk is set in a remote - and chilly - village that finds itself buried under a year-round blanket of snow. Legend has it that a woman with red eyes - the mark of a witch - will bring the town to a fiery ruin, and as such, villagers take the threat of such women very seriously, calling for the death of anyone who shows the so-called mark of the witch. It's for this reason that our unlucky protagonist Jed, whose left eye just so happens to turn red during times of stress, must live her life in secrecy, dressed as a man - because if there's one thing we all know, it's that men can't be witches. In fact, in the whole of the village, there are only two people who know of her secret identity - her adoptive mother, Francisca, and the mysterious Ashen Hawk, the owner of the tower in which she now lives on the outskirts of town.
However, the possibility of having a witch in their midst isn't the only thing that threatens the peace in this town. For almost as long as anyone can remember, the town has been caught in a power struggle between two factions, the Wolves and the Hawks. Splitting the town down the middle, whether you side with the 'good guy' Wolves or the Hawks' 'dictatorship' can be a cause for strife, distrust and disagreements. As an honorary member of the Wolves, thanks to her adoption by the head of the family, Francisca, it's even more important that Jed keeps her potential 'witch-ness' hidden, both from the townsfolk, as well as from the Hawk clan, who would use it against them too.
Attempting to distance herself from her family because of the problems her red eye could cause, Jed makes a small living from doing odd jobs around town. And one rather important job she finds herself being tasked with involves locating the mysterious Kaleido-Via, an important artefact that has recently been stolen from the church. An integral part of the upcoming masquerade, a spring celebration where the two clans try to put away their differences for one night, if Jed can't find the Kaleido-Via, the small semblance of peace the town currently enjoys could be in tatters. But as she digs deeper in her search, she soon finds the Kaleido-Via has a much deeper significance - and that the past of the town, everyone she knows, and even her own origins, are a much more murky and mysterious tale than she first thought.
Like its somewhat-connected predecessor Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly, Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk is as story-driven as they come - the whole point of the game is to sit back and read as the story unfolds, and the mystery of the town, the Kaleido Via and Jed herself begin to unfold. There's plenty of twists and turns along the way, as characters' real motives and secrets begin to be revealed, and very few people are as they initially seem. However, Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk can feel like it takes a fair while to get going, as nothing hugely notable seems to happen in the first few chapters - although the bombshells definitely do start dropping towards the end, if you stick with it.
Technically speaking, Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk is an 'otome' visual novel - one where picking certain conversation options and actions during the course of the story can steer you on to the path of romancing a particular bachelor. However, Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk has a comparatively minor romantic bent, with much more of an emphasis on the overarching story, with any romantic endings being effectively relegated to a short chapter or so that branches off towards the end of the game. In fact, somewhat surprisingly, there's relatively little in the way of branching for the vast majority of the game, and with it comparatively little in the way of conversation options to pick from - for the first eight chapters (of about ten), you're basically locked into a single, linear story with minimum diversions.
Taking cues from its predecessor Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly, you're able to see how the story and various branches connect together with a handy flowchart, and you can skip to any point in the story at the touch of a button, which is pretty handy. Also taken from Black Butterfly are a whole truckload of bonus 'short episodes' which give you some insight into Jed and co's daily lives in stories that don't necessarily fit into the main flow of the story. In and of themselves, these are pretty fun - but on occasion, the progression of the main story will be locked off until you've watched an arbitrary number of these episodes, which can make the story feel a bit stop-start at times.
There's also a large number of 'talk episodes' thrown in for good measure, which really are pointless fluff. These section are mostly just random townsfolk giving you three lines of nothing, or the bachelors giving you a brief run down of what they look for in a woman/what their favourite food is, yet there's a whopping 165 of the things! It wouldn't be an issue if they weren't at least somewhat compulsory, but for each talk episode you go through, you'll earn one unit of 'town memories' - a currency which can be spent in the tavern to unlock additional short episodes, many of which are essential viewing for getting certain characters' endings.
While the mandatory talk episodes may put a bit of a down on things, and although Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk may take a bit longer to get going than Aksys' other recent otome games, once it it starts, it's a roller coaster ride of revelations and unexpected twists for Jed and co as the truth of their town starts to unfold. It may not be quite as romance-orientated as developer Otomate's usual offerings, but it's a game that still tells a good story - and brings their 'Summer of Mystery' to a fitting conclusion too. We just wish there were a few less pointless 'talk episodes' to contend with.